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  • 22 January 2016

Will a 'grand bargain' solve the humanitarian funding crisis?

This article was originally written for the Guardian Development Professionals Network as an opinion-piece looking at the High Level Panel on Humanitarian

This article was originally written for the Guardian Development Professionals Network as an opinion-piece looking at the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing Report.

The aptly titled report Too important to fail from the High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing was launched in Dubai yesterday. Does it offer viable solutions to the widening gap between humanitarian needs and available resources? Is the ‘grand bargain’ it offers enough to transform a struggling aid system?

All eyes are on humanitarian financing in 2016. The World Humanitarian Summit in May is fast approaching and the launch of the report comes against a backdrop of the displacement of millions of people in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq and other disaster and conflict-affected countries. Their suffering reminds us of the need to get this right fast.

The report contains many good ideas; the strongest and most exciting are those that speak to audiences beyond the usual humanitarian crowd. For example, giving middle-income countries access to grants and low-income loans to finance large-scale refugee hosting, working with the insurance industry to adapt its risk-financing strategies to humanitarian situations, and tapping into the billions of dollars generated each year through Islamic social finance.

Few of the initiatives suggested are new – nor does the panel claim they are. Many have been discussed at length by other groups, and already piloted and reviewed in some cases. But seen together for the first time, and presented as compellingly as they are in the report, they have the potential to expand the responsibility to act beyond the narrow confines of the humanitarian community. The recommendations use finance as a driving force to enrich the aid ecosystem and push for institutional changes to bridge the humanitarian and development divide. This challenge is more pertinent than ever today given the increasingly protracted nature of crises around the world.

How radical is the ‘grand bargain’?

The ‘grand bargain’ comes at the end of the report and may leave many readers asking whether the deal is radical enough. It proposes that the major donors and largest humanitarian organisations commit to make their spending more flexible, efficient, transparent and effective. The bargain is aimed in particular at the five largest government donors of humanitarian assistance, those that supplied over 60% of the international humanitarian resources in 2014; and the six UN agencies that spent nearly half of it.

The logic is that if the giants can get it right, other donors and aid organisations will follow. But starting here does risk establishing the terms of the bargain in favour of these powerful few and thereby entrenching the concentration of funds even further, rather than encouraging a more diverse and equitable distribution of resources as recommended elsewhere in the report.

There is also the question of those without a seat at the bargaining table. The Gulf states and other emerging donors are clearly a central part of the financing solution. The choice of Dubai for the report launch yesterday reminds us of how important they are. The report is unclear however whether Gulf states are invited to negotiate the terms of the bargain, or to be bound by it. The same goes for international, national and local NGOs – vital links in the chain between UN agencies and crisis-affected populations – who are already asking what their role is in the bargaining process.

The specific components of the bargain also appear to fall short of the panel’s ambition to ensure that resources are found to meet the needs of those most likely to be left behind. We don’t just need more joint assessments between a few big humanitarian agencies, we need a radical rethink of what we know about what makes people vulnerable to crisis in the first place and how to match their needs with the right resources. On transparency, the grand bargain may do something to improve reporting of international humanitarian assistance by a few, but we should aim for more. A bigger vision is required, in which all resources, beyond just international humanitarian resources can be counted.

Turning the grand bargain into a big deal will clearly be a challenge. Vested interests, competition for scarce resources, and the humanitarian-development divide are as old as aid itself. What’s different now, perhaps, is the window of opportunity that the World Humanitarian Summit has created. Responsibility for taking the panel’s recommendations forward now passes from the hands of technical experts to those of the political and financial decision-makers who will be represented en masse in Istanbul in May. This combined with the scale of the problem, and the reputation and clout of the panel members themselves as they go out and canvass support, may be the tipping point that we’ve all been waiting for.

The grand bargain will be a central topic of numerous global-level humanitarian meetings in the coming months. Even more interesting will be to see whether the panel’s recommendations get picked up outside of the humanitarian calendar. Will other actors agree that this is too important to ignore, and that they too have a stake in addressing the humanitarian financing gap? If the answer is yes, then the grand bargain may turn out to be a big deal after all.

This article was originally published on Monday 18th January 2016 the Guardian Development Professionals Network